Alleged murder isn’t great for business—and alleged dismemberment is even worse, as the Royal Kingdom is now learning, with billionaire Virgin Galactic founder the most recent of three to cancel Saudi deals following accusations that they heinously disposed of a prominent journalist in a Saudi consulate on Turkish soil.
Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Galactic space tourism venture, has now announced that his company is temporarily suspending its partnership with the Saudis who have promised a $1-billion investment.
Branson’s move follows two others, including that of billionaire tech investor Steve Case, who has put all Saudi business meetings on hold, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was scheduled to speak at a key Saudi business conference this month and has now withdrawn.
"I'm very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi," Khosrowshahi said in a statement late Thursday. "We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won't be attending the FII conference in Riyadh."
Big business is indicating that it’s ready to put its money where its mouth is, while pressure in mounting on Washington—which has a multi-billion-dollar arms deal at stake—to do the same. Usually, it’s the other way around.
At issue here is the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is said to have entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey on October 2nd, and then never left. Related: Retail Sales Rebound, But Is It Enough To Post Positive Earnings?
Turkish authorities say they have video footage and audio evidence that Khashoggi—a critic of the Saudi regime and particularly of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was murdered inside the consulate by a Saudi “hit squad” that had been flown in specifically to take the journalist out after luring him into the consulate.
The Saudis vehemently deny the Turkish version of events.
The Turks, meanwhile, have made sure that everyone knows that Washington is aware of the footage at a time when a $110-billion arms deal is at stake.
Last Thursday, Trump wasn’t keen to consider giving up this deal at all.
"As to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country knowing that they have four or five alternatives – two very good alternatives – that would not be acceptable to me," Trump said.
Also on Thursday, under mounting pressure from a bipartisan group of senators, Trump said the U.S was launching a probe into the journalist’s disappearance.
However, by Monday, Trump was back on the Saudi bandwagon, suggesting that the journalist was killed by “rogue” elements and noting that “the denial was very strong”.
But it’s also notable that Trump has been speaking with Saudi King Salman, not MbS, and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is being dispatched to meet with the King as well, rather than the Crown Prince. To Saudi watchers, this suggests that the situation has gotten out of hand and that the Crown Prince has possibly overstepped, with the Turks suggested he was behind the disappearance.
For now, Branson’s break with the Saudis is the most significant, and the least potentially symbolic. That’s because a billion-dollar Saudi investment is at stake from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).
That investment infusion would help Virgin Galactic develop and test it’s space plane that hopes to take tourists into space for short trips. It would also help the development of a Virgin Orbit rocket that is meant to deploy from the wing of a carrier airplane.
In a blog post, Branson said he had had “high hopes” for the current Saudi government and MbS and had been “delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea”.
“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government. We have asked for more information from the authorities in Saudi and to clarify their position in relation to Mr Khashoggi,” Branson continued.
“While those investigations are ongoing and Mr Khashoggi’s whereabouts are not known, I will suspend my directorships of the two tourism projects,” he said.
By Charles Benavidez for Safehaven.com
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